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Taking the long view

Taking the long view

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Taking the long view

Feb. 16, 2007    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0626}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

It is very difficult for the church of Jesus Christ to be faithful to its mission in any cultural context at any particular time. Our biggest challenge is to learn how to live in the world without becoming so much a part of the world that we lose our identity as the church and fail to make our witness to Christ and fulfill our mission for Christ.
In order to be faithful in any time and place it is necessary to take the long view. We have to understand the church as a distinctive community striving to be true to its calling from its beginning by the apostles to the end of time. A historical perspective can guide the church as it goes through time.
I was reminded of the necessity of taking the long view as I read “Christianity Among the Religions of the World” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957) by the late distinguished historian Arnold Toynbee. As a historian, Toynbee possessed insights into the present responsibilities of the church by viewing the role of the church in the long sweep of history. Even though the book is dated, its main insights still possess validity.
Toynbee’s primary concern is not actually the relationship of Christianity to the other higher religions, although he addresses this as the title promises, but the relationship of Christianity to modern Western civilization.
Toynbee does not forget that Christianity is older than our present Western civilization, which he believes began around A.D. 700, or that it will outlast it. He states “we may also confidently predict that Christianity will continue to be a living spiritual force in the World for thousands of years after our Western civilization has passed away.”
The historian observes that Christianity is always engaged in “incidental activities,” and these include serving as “a midwife for our Western civilization” of liberty and laying the foundation for a modern economy because of its teaching of the worth of every person created in God’s image and redeemed by Christ. At the same time, he argues “we in the West should try to purge our Christianity of its Western accessories” since the gospel is not just for the West, but for the whole human race, and also because there are elements of Western civilization that are pagan rather than Christian in origin.
The main element of Western civilization that is not Christian in origin is the politics of war, which Toynbee claims comes partly from the Roman Empire and war-bands of North European barbarians and, often unremarked, largely from the Greeks’ idolatrous worship of their city-states. Christianity, by contrast, is peaceable, and it is opposed to making a nation or a civilization the highest object of one’s commitment. Nationalism, and the militarism that accompanies it, is the worship of “collective human power.”
This is where the relationship of Christianity to other higher religions comes in: “the higher religions ought … to stand together in preaching the supremely important negative belief that is common to them all. They all believe that man is not the highest spiritual presence in the universe. This belief is worth fighting for. If we lose it, we shall go to perdition. For only humility can save mankind from destroying himself.”
Toynbee believes Christianity can join the other religions in resisting national idolatry and war making and working for global human rights, social justice and human welfare. These tasks are necessary to prevent the “spiritual demoralization” of the human race. However, the religions also know that “secular happiness” is not an end to itself, but a necessary means to “the true end of Man, which is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
As I reflect on this eminent historian’s insights in the role of Christianity in the world, I am struck by how relevant they are in this particular moment when there is so much talk about an ideological struggle between modern Western civilization and Islamic terrorists. Terrorism has to be dealt with, but we who are Christians must beware of the seduction of letting Christianity play a role of being a prop for a war between civilizations. We must not allow ourselves to be deceived into imagining ourselves at war with the people of another religion. Rather, we are called to be witnesses to the wisdom of God and the peaceable kingdom of Christ and to reach out to people of other faiths, including Muslims, to warn the world about its dangerous ways and to devote ourselves to creating a more just order in a world of poverty and to invite people to find their true spiritual purpose in God.


This article relates to Christian Mission.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.